Saying no to knotweed

NORTH CREEK – Standing in front of an audience of about 75 people in the Tannery Pond Community Center Monday, Ed Frantz recalled the first time he encountered the invasive plant Japanese knotweed.

It was when he was a kid in the 1970s.

“I was about 8 years old, and I was on my grandparents farm, and my grandfather said, ‘I’ve got a job for you,’ and gave me a sickle.”

Frantz said he and other family members attacked that patch of Japanese knotweed for about 10 years trying to get rid of it.

“We used everything from diesel fuel to kerosene, all things you wouldn’t do again today,” he recalled. “We didn’t know what it was, we were just told to kill that plant.”

Today, Frantz still encounters Japanese knotweed, except now it’s part of his job to deal with the invasive plant as the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve manager for the state Department of Transportation.

Frantz relayed this anecdote as part of a presentation at the Japanese Knotweed Management Summit, organized by the Adirondack Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management. He was one of 10 speakers at the conference, which was attended by private property owners, DOT employees, and elected officials, among others.

“Japanese knotweed has been presenting problems across the globe, and it’s just really starting to cause problems in the Adirondacks,” invasive species specialist Brendan Quirion told the Enterprise. “There’s towns like Bolton, and there’s river corridors like the Branch River in Elizabethtown that are seeing rampant spread of Japanese knotweed. So this is really geared to really address that threat, and we’re really trying to bring all the stakeholders together today to have the best information at the table on what we can do to make sure that the AuSable isn’t the next river that has the invasion, or the Boquet, some of our pristine trout fisheries, and even our native brook trout fisheries.”

Quirion, who is the Terrestrial Invasive Species Project coordinator for the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program, said Japanese knotweed is found alongside many roadways in the Park and some rivers and streams. Most of the infestations are pretty small right now, especially in comparison to other areas of New York. Still, those who are aware of the problems with Japanese knotweed don’t want it to proliferate and become a larger problem.

According to the website, “Japanese knotweed forms dense thickets of thick bamboo-like hollow stems, with mature heights over 10 feet and an extensive network of underground roots.”

“Japanese knotweed is pretty much present on all the state routes in the Adirondacks and the hamlet areas,” Quirion said. “It originally was planted as an ornamental in many of those places, and from there, it’s spread through mowing, ditching activities along the right of ways. And once the river meets the road, that’s the problem. I talked about earlier where you have the widespread fragmentation and complete river corridor invasion. It’s not uncommon to see this walking around Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, any of those areas in the Tri-Lakes.”

Once these infestations get started, they are very difficult to get rid of unless herbicides are used. Even then, it takes years and constant monitoring to get rid of the plant.

The problem with Japanese knotweed is that it crowds out native plants and disrupts the natural balance of ecosystems. It is considered so problematic that the World Conservation Union has labeled it one of the world’s 100 worse invasives.

“As a general rule of thumb, as native flora simplifies, so does the fauna,” Quirion said. “And you can expect the results of that to manifest themselves in a large Japanese knotweed infestation.”

Japanese knotweed is often unknowingly spread by people who move the plant material from one place to another, often when they are moving dirt from one place to another. This is done by highway departments, landscapers and homeowners. It can also be moved by natural events such as flooding. It’s fragments can be washed downstream or sometimes the plants themselves are swept downstream after the shoreline erodes.

One of the main reasons Frantz spoke to the crowd was to inform other highway workers about ways to avoid unnecessarily moving this plant.

“Waste disposal is a real key issue, making sure we don’t dig the stuff up and spread it and give to a new site,” Frantz said. “That’s one of the things right now with flooding. We’re digging so much material out, we’re trying to at least talk about where it goes. We’re going to pay attention to a lot of locations where we moved all this material.”

It can also be spread by mowing and activities such as ditch digging along roadsides, when the dirt from the ditch is moved to a new area.

However, one of the problems with dealing with Japanese knotweed is that it’s only one of many issues that highway workers and others have to deal with. AFPIP Director Hilary Smith acknowledged this during one of the question-and-answer sessions at the summit. For instance, Smith noted that highway workers are told not to mow knotweed along roadsides, but are supposed to mow the invasives such as wild parsnip and purple loosestrife before they go to seed. Not to mention, monarch butterfly advocates are now saying that highway departments shouldn’t mow milkweed plants because they are the sole source of food for reproducing monarchs, a species on the decline.

“It’s a really complicated situation,” Smith said. “And I think that’s the first thing, knowing there’s, again, no silver bullet. It’s going to be kind of site specific, and really kind of will take that group effort to kind of come up with the right solutions. So again, it’s reiterating a point that we’re all in it together.”

Collaboration between agencies, organizations and individuals was one of the main underlying themes at the summit.

One of those who spoke was Doug Johnson, who heads the Inlet Invasive Plant Program. This program is a joint effort between volunteers like Johnson and the town of Inlet. The program, which operates on a budget of about $15,000 a year, focuses on eradicating Japanese knotweed on private properties throughout the Park.

According to the group’s website, in 2012 the organization treated “51,000 knotweed canes in over 160 sites including prior sites, new sites in the same towns, and additional sites in Chestertown, Lake Garnet, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. Many sites are near shores, rivers and streams, with sites near wetlands requiring Adirondack Park Agency approval.”

Johnson emphasized there are a lot of factors that come into play for running a successful program, which is key to keeping knotweed at bay. That includes having someone coordinate the work, getting volunteers, support from the town, having people who are properly trained to apply herbicides on the plants and having enough funding.

And, of course, the key component is having landowners who are aware of the problem and willing to deal with the situation.

“It is going to require each of the owners being aware of invasives and then working together to come up with solutions,” Smith said.